(New York) - The Pakistan government should immediately release thousands of lawyers and opposition activists detained across the country in a crackdown after military ruler General Pervez Musharraf suspended the constitution and imposed a state of emergency on November 3, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch has received credible reports from government officials requesting anonymity that bar association officials and lawyers have been mistreated in detention.
Since November 3, the police have violently suppressed peaceful protests by lawyers across Pakistan. Protests have taken place in the federal capital, Islamabad, the four provincial capital cities of Lahore, Peshawar, Karachi and Quetta, and in the city of Multan in southern Punjab. In each city, police have beaten protestors with batons and used tear gas to disperse them.
Most of those detained are being held without charge. Hundreds of lawyers are being held under terrorism charges without any factual basis. Treason charges also have been instituted against some. Almost two-thirds of Pakistan’s senior judges remain under house arrest.
“While Musharraf is charging lawyers fighting for the rule of law as ‘terrorists,’ armed militants are increasing their stranglehold over northwestern Pakistan,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “By destabilizing the country with his naked power grab, Musharraf has alienated moderates and played into the hands of extremists. There can be no meaningful counterterrorism efforts until Musharraf restores constitutional rule and restores the judiciary.”
Human Rights Watch expressed particular concern about the fate of the lawyers leading the movement for judicial independence that began on March 9, 2007, when Musharraf first tried to oust Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry. This group includes: Aitzaz Ahsan, president of the Supreme Court Bar Association; Ahsan’s predecessor Munir Malik; retired Justice Tariq Mehmood; and, Ali Ahmed Kurd, a lawyer from Balochistan who has “disappeared” since he was allegedly picked up by security forces on November 3. While Ahsan is being held in solitary confinement in Rawalpindi Jail, the families and lawyers of the other three have not heard from nor been given access to them since they were detained.
Human Rights Watch has received credible reports that the Pakistani military’s feared Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agency and Military Intelligence (MI) agency are jointly detaining and interrogating them. Both agencies have a well-documented history of “disappearances” and using torture against political opponents. Families throughout the country have not had access to the detained lawyers except in exceptional cases.
“Musharraf has defied domestic opinion and the international community by rounding up many of Pakistan’s finest lawyers and subjecting them to solitary confinement and, very possibly, torture because they protested his ugly power grab,” said Adams. “The past conduct of the security services leaves the world with no choice but to assume the worst about the fate of those being held incommunicado.”
Asma Jahangir, a prominent lawyer, chairperson of the nongovernmental Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) and a United Nations Special Rapporteur, remains under house arrest in Lahore. Police raided and sealed HRCP offices in the southwestern city of Quetta on November 7.
Deposed Supreme Court Chief Justice Chaudhry has been held incommunicado since he addressed a gathering of lawyers via telephone on November 6. Chaudhry told the gathering that “the Constitution has been ripped to shreds” and urged lawyers to struggle “for the supremacy of the Constitution.” The government jammed mobile telephone signals midway through the address. His family members have also been restricted to his residence. All members of the Supreme Court who refused to accept the legality of the state of emergency remain under house arrest.
Human Rights Watch called for the judges to be released immediately and restored to their posts.
“The past year has seen a revolution in Pakistan as the judiciary fought successfully for its independence and held the government to account,” said Adams. “Musharraf used Orwellian language when he said the state of emergency was to preserve the ‘democratic transition.’ What he really did was to end reform in a stroke of the pen.”
Human Rights Watch also called for the release of hundreds of detained activists from the opposition Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami parties rounded up in a bid to prevent protests and anti-government political mobilization. Scores of lawyers affiliated with the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) have also been arrested because of their association with the lawyers’ movement to restore the constitution. Outside parliament in Islamabad on November 7, police tear-gassed and baton-charged dozens of PPP supporters at the PPP’s first protest demonstration since the declaration of emergency rule.
Journalists attempting to cover the crackdown on the political opposition continue to be threatened, and all private and international television channels remain off the air.
Human Rights Watch reiterated its call for Pakistan to immediately return to constitutional rule, restore fundamental rights and remove restrictions on the media. Human Rights Watch called for the United States and the United Kingdom, Musharraf’s principal patrons, to impose comprehensive sanctions on all military and economic aid, with the exception of humanitarian aid.
“The world is waiting to hear a clear statement from President Bush that, as in Burma recently, he will use all means at his disposal to reverse repression,” said Adams. “The Bush administration must understand that the more Musharraf represses those peacefully opposed to him, the more he isolates himself and increases the unpopularity of the United States among Pakistanis.”